“When you let people participate in the design process, you find that they often have ingenious ideas about what would really help them. And it’s not a onetime thing; it’s an iterative process.”

Melinda Gates

A number of readers of my last post asked me: “What exactly makes a product’s design human or user focused?” Simply stated, it is understanding from the user’s perspective the task that needs to be accomplished and then building a product or service that helps them accomplish that task faster and easier, but in a way that is natural and intuitive for the user.  While it may sound simple, it is often the hardest part of product development. 

Not surprisingly, even the largest of companies often miss the mark.  By way of example, Microsoft’s first operating system for smartphones was called Windows Mobile and was a miniaturized version of Windows for PCs.  As shown in the below image, Windows Mobile came complete with both a Start button and File Explorer, even though the screen size of phones at the time was less than 6% the size of the average PC screen and storage capacity was a similarly low percentage of PC capacity:

Windows Mobile

What Microsoft missed was that the tasks users wanted to accomplish on their smartphones (and the manner by which users wanted to accomplish those tasks) was significantly different from the “what and how” of doing things on PCs.  Needless to say, Windows Mobile was difficult to use, even with a stylus.  And as to functionality, users did not want or need their desktop PC experience mimicked on their cell phones.

Rather, users wanted a product designed for handheld devices that accomplished some very basic tasks when they were away from their PCs — making phone calls, listening to voicemail, sending and receiving simple emails, checking their calendar, looking up a contact and browsing the Web.  They did not need a Start menu, File Explorer or Task Manager for their phone nor did they want to close applications by having to use a stylus to activate a miniature “X” tucked away in the far right hand corner of the screen. Not surprisingly, when Apple came out with the iPhone that had features and characteristics that matched user behavior (including a finger driven user interface), it roared to dominance in the marketplace.

Unfortunately, it appears that Microsoft recently repeated this mistake in the opposite direction with Windows 8 when they took their new, finger-driven phone interface developed in response to the iPhone (now named, Windows Phone) and made that phone interface their new PC user interface. Needless to say, the overwhelming majority of PC users did not have touch screens and used their PCs for different and significantly more involved tasks than those undertaken on their smartphones.

Moreover, Windows 8 took two of users’ most commonly used and liked PC features (the Start menu and File Explorer) and made them almost invisible. Not surprisingly, Microsoft is still working on remedying this problem through the development of Windows 10.

Windows 8

The key lesson in all of this is that user centered design is critically important, especially when in comes to “change-adverse” professions like the law.  Legal technology products are way more successful and effective when designers embrace how lawyers work rather than presuming they can change how lawyers  behave.

I first learned this lesson first hand fifteen years ago when we started the e-discovery company Attenex.   Skip Walters, our CEO/CTO, actually sat down and watched for weeks on end how Preston Gates’ document reviewers worked.  This experience led Skip to the conclusion that first and hardest part of a reviewer’s job was not making individual relevancy decisions on given documents; rather, it was finding a way to get the 85% of the material that was clearly irrelevant — duplicate documents, fantasy football email exchanges, server mailbox limitation notices, etc.  — quickly out of the reviewer’s data set.

Accordingly, Attenex focused its first product release on technology that automatically removed duplicates from the document set behind the scenes and then clustered the remaining documents together by primary concepts such that reviewers could make quick group decisions  on clearly non-responsive documents. Enabling reviewers to quickly get down to the 15% that was possibly relevant, matched the way they worked and significantly improved their productivity by letting them focus on the work that really required their skills and training — getting the 15% down to the responsive 5%.

We took exactly the same lawyer-centric approach at MetaJure with respect to document management. Knowing that all lawyers naturally name their documents and email subject lines with accurate and descriptive terms and then file their emails and documents in well-structured Outlook and My Document folders, we decided to embrace that behavior rather than fight it. Asking them to also fill out profiles (with oftentimes confusing or nonsensical fields) was a change that most lawyers weren’t going to make, especially as the volumes of their electronic work product grew exponentially.

I was recently asked “How can you tell when looking at a legal technology product if it is well designed?”  For me, at least, the simple test is whether the product is fun to use for lawyers.  If it is, it probably matches their work style and makes their day way easier.  If it isn’t, it’s probably time to go back to the proverbial drawing board…


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